With the announcement Thursday that it would not sponsor a ticket in the 2024 presidential election, the ostensibly nonpartisan organization No Labels all but completed its predictable life cycle. Founded in 2010 during the meteoric rise of the Tea Party and the worsening polarization of American politics, No Labels advertised itself as the vehicle for compromise-minded centrism at a time when Americans were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the failure of their political institutions. Yet it never found the same kind of traction with voters, or even potential political allies, as it did with donors obsessed with the idea that they could magically conjure a new moderate party out of D.C.’s swampy air. And as its ideal candidates said “no thanks” to a No Labels bid, one after another, over the past year, it should have become clear that the party’s moderate had been right in front of it the whole time—in the White House.

No Labels was merely the latest iteration of a Beltway parlor trick that’s as old as time. In 2012 it was called Americans Elect, and in 2008 it was Unity08. The core is a kind of institutional McCainism: the idea that Democrats and Republicans are too extreme and that what the country needs is a third party that represents centrism, bipartisanship, and compromise. And on a certain level you can understand the thinking; Americans continue to express abstract support for bipartisanship even as the country has descended into elite-driven gridlock and resentment. According to a 2023 Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service survey, 82 percent said that “compromise and common ground should be the goal for political leaders.” This tracks the findings of a long-running Gallup survey showing that the majority of Americans would prefer that politicians compromise rather than “sticking to their beliefs.”

The trouble with these kinds of survey results is that they are extremely soft and often do not survive contact with real-world situations. Telling a pollster that you support compromise in the abstract is easy, but most voters don’t want it to be their own side doing the giving. The actual demand side of the equation for institutional bipartisanship is therefore pretty small.

The other problem with the No Labels operation is that there already is a moderate, bipartisanship-minded political faction in the United States. It is called the Democratic Party. For better or for worse, that party continues to be the home of nearly all of the remaining “institutionalists” in U.S. politics, and party leadership has repeatedly, over the past decade, passed up opportunities to engage in retaliatory procedural maneuvering in response to GOP constitutional hardball, preferring instead to stand up for a long-vanished consensus politics that has virtually no support on the other side of the aisle.

President Joe Biden not only leads that institutionalist party, but he is also its most vocal and successful backer of bipartisanship as a governing and political philosophy. During the 2020 campaign, he touted his record of reaching across the aisle when he was a senator, and as president he has signed an impressive array of bills with bipartisan support, including the CHIPS and Science Act, which received 17 Republican votes in the Senate; the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act, which got 18 Senate Republican votes; and the Respect for Marriage Act, which earned 12 Senate GOP votes. These legislative achievements are particularly notable given the general atmosphere of poisonous loathing that permeates relations between the parties today in Washington and the considerable pressure that Republicans in particular are under not to work with Democrats under any circumstances. And Biden clearly would sign other bipartisan compromises that were spiked by GOP intransigence, particularly the border and immigration deal that former President Donald Trump cavalierly destroyed earlier this year.

In addition to his actually existing record of bipartisanship, Biden and Democrats have also repeatedly resisted tit-for-tat partisan escalation. For example, after Republicans changed the rules on Supreme Court nominations three times in four years—blocking President Barack Obama’s pick for a vacancy in 2016 by claiming “No Supreme Court picks in an election year,” nuking the filibuster to confirm Neil Gorsuch for that seat in 2017, then finally, in the fall of 2020, amending their made-up 2016 rule to read “No Supreme Court picks in an election year unless the president’s party holds the Senate”—Democrats didn’t retaliate at all, even after this ill-gotten conservative supermajority overturned Roe v. Wade in the summer of 2022. Unmoved by newfound progressive fervor to expand the Supreme Court, Biden has resolutely opposed this kind of procedural escalation.

Is the Democratic Party “moderate” on every single issue? No, but you can tell that issue positions weren’t the ideological wellspring of No Labels because members of the group almost never talked about any specific policy agenda. It was always about finding a unicorn like Joe Manchin or Larry Hogan, convincing that person to take the nomination, and building a movement around them. But Manchin is not moderate about everything! To take one example, the direct cash-based child tax credit that the United States briefly experimented with during the COVID-19 pandemic had towering supermajority support from voters, yet Manchin almost single-handedly spiked it. Supermajorities also support paid family leave, another policy that Manchin helped destroy by stripping it out of Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. It is likely just a coincidence that Manchin’s corporate donors, including Home Depot’s Ken Langone, immediately showered him with cash after he put the kibosh on a version of Build Back Better in 2022 that included paid leave. It almost seems as if the economic “moderation” that No Labels supports is not some happy middle ground that includes some of what Democrats want and some of what Republicans want. Instead, what No Labels has advocated for is mostly vague, Simpson-Bowles–style austerity that has very little actual support among American voters, and for good reason—it sucks.

When specific ideas were advanced—such as No Labels’ incredibly original idea to have Medicare negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies to bring down costs—they were usually taking a position already adopted by leading Democrats. The group’s official (and almost comically thin) policy document also calls for a path to citizenship for Dreamers (undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children), supports universal background checks for gun buyers, criticizes the country’s reliance on China for clean-energy supply chains, and refers to our NATO allies as “critical components of our national security, economic prosperity, and global leadership.” It asks for Social Security reform that doesn’t involve benefit cuts and for a legal right to mail-in balloting. Well, it seems as if the party already has the president of its dreams, given that Biden literally supports or has signed legislation about all of these things.

That’s not a winning formula for third-party relevance. One underrated aspect of third-party struggles in the United States is that the most prominent small parties—the Greens and Libertarians—are quite extreme ideologically compared with the average American voter. And no American third party has yet made a serious bid for the kind of politics that has been pretty successful in Europe: economically liberal but conservative on nationalism and immigration. Those parties have succeeded in large part because their mix of policy preferences are both pretty popular and not yet represented by their existing competitors.

No Labels is not extremist, but it suffered from a comprehensive failure to carve out a unique political or ideological space for itself. By staking its entire bid for relevance on ideas that are mostly advanced by the sitting president of the United States and his party, and on a belief in institutionalism that is already fervently supported by leading Democrats, the group all but doomed its efforts from the get-go. That its candidates consistently siphoned more potential voters from Biden than from Trump in polling was only more evidence that the ideal No Labels voter already has a home. Potential candidates who actually cared about throwing the election to Trump looked at this data and drew the only available conclusion: A No Labels candidacy would pave the way for a second Trump term, a development that would only exacerbate the problems the group pretended to care about.

Nevertheless, the end of the No Labels bid is unqualified good news for a Biden campaign that is still struggling to make headway in polling. And now that the looming threat of at least one third-party candidate has been dealt with, Biden can continue doing close to everything No Labels wanted him to do in the first place.

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